Two years ago, we were passing through from Western Highlands and stopped by at Jerry Kapka’s coffee factory along the Chuave section of the highway.
Mr. Kapka is the owner of Kongo Coffee, one of the biggest brands in Papua New Guinea.
We had stopped for a coffee. But it so happened, Mr. Kapka was there and the five minute chat turned into a three hour discussion about his life and work.
The Kongo Coffee story
Jerry Kapka has come a long way.
Twenty years ago, the Kongo brand was unknown. While his people grew coffee, they had very little say over prices which were controlled by companies established long before Papua New Guinea’s political independence.
It was an uphill battle.
A price war began between the small under resourced coffee start-up and large companies owned and operated by foreigners. Among other strategies, Jerry Kapka offered a higher price, sometimes doubling the prices for village farmers.
“I went to the growers and asked them how much they wanted. They named their price and I said you got it.”
Coffee growers flocked to Kongo Coffee.
He then expanded his reach into the Eastern Highlands and eventually wrestled sizable portion of the market share.
As the afternoon chill set in, I took another sip of the strong Mt. Elimbari blend in the fast fading light, pulled over the hoodie, as I listened to his story.
Inside his factory, he showed us his fully automated processing line. It is an investment that he has added to over the last 10 years. The center piece of this facility is a machine that identifies and removes low quality beans.
Mr. Kapka has always prided himself on producing quality. While his primary business is coffee exports, his packaged coffee blends have become a much sought after item on the international market.
He scooped up a handful of beans of various sizes rejected in the processing.
“This is what they buy from us to make instant coffee. Don’t buy instant coffee,” he laughed. “It’s low quality stuff.”
The conversation with Jerry Kapka went on for another hour until 7pm when we left for Goroka.
The discussion about low quality beans and instant coffee stuck in my mind. Jerry Kapka was the second person to tell me about how instant coffee was made.
The first was Michael Toliman, a good friend and patriot who kept a copy of Papua New Guinea’s National Goals and Directive Principles beside him always.
Michael, a former CIC extension officer, spent about a decade working with coffee growers in Boana in rural Morobe. They developed the Neknasi Coffee Cooperative and began exporting to Australia.
He said once that Papua New Guineans don’t really appreciate their own world class coffee. Instead they choose to buy cheap instant coffee power imported from Malaysia and Indonesia.
“I’ve always appreciated good PNG coffee. The first time ever, I got a taste of it was from my dad’s office percolator in Goroka where he was Deputy Administrator. The caffeine gives me headaches these days. But it doesn’t stop me from drinking coffee.”
Every blend has a story. A story about people, their struggles and their successes. Kongo Coffee is the story about how a small PNG company took on the big guns in the industry and gave a better price to the people who deserved a price increase.
There are many names today – Neknasi, Menyamya, Awute, Kainantu, Sigri, Elimbari. Each have a story.
The stories told by Michael Toliman and Jerry Kapka gave me a better appreciation of who I was actually supporting whenever I buy a K50 Goroka Coffee pack or a K14 Elimbari blend.
Buying a cappuccino, latte or an espresso from a café that serves PNG coffee is the best thing you can do for PNG coffee growers. That money trickles back into the growers in Mt. Elimbari in Simbu or Asaroka in Eastern Highlands or Hagen Central.
I end this blog post by saying this: To Papua New Guineans who have money to spare, go buy good PNG coffee. You’re supporting your people in rural Papua New Guinea.